july 2009

Photo by Rebecca Sharp
Rhonda kicks back on the pool table, surrounded by the current Rage lineup (from left): Mickey Harris, bass; Aaron McDaris, banjo; Hunter Berry, fiddle; Ben Helson, guitar. At eight and nine years respectively, Harris and Berry are the longest tenured Ragers in the band. McDaris and Helson joined at the end of '08. 'It's the right combination of musicians,' Vincent says of the new lineup.


High Tech Rhonda

She may be the thoroughly modern All-American Bluegrass Girl, but on Destination Life, Rhonda Vincent goes retro in the studio

By David McGee

Few artists of the stature of the putative queen of bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent, can be so easily tracked. On the morning of an interview with this reporter, her website message board (www.rhondavincent.com), a reliable source of information as to her whereabouts owing to her frequent postings thereon, revealed she was in St. Louis, en route to Nashville via rental car. The story wasn't all that simple, though.

Good Morning from St Louis!!!

I rode the Kirksville puddle jumper plane, which is now a VERY NICE RIDE!!!

They have changed companies, and it is like having a private jet.

I rode with another fellow that now lives in Tuscon, AZ.

We kicked back and took a quick snooze on the 50 minute flight, that was even EARLY today! We arrived a full 45 minutes early.

Instead of purchasing the $700 plus flight from STL to BNA; I opted for the $129 rental car from Hertz.

So I also took the SIRIUS Radio Option on the rental car; and was making my way onto I-70 East; when before my wandering eyes should appear....

MAID RITE on the exit sign.

Maid Rite's are my Dad's and My Favorite. If you're not familiar with Maid Rite. They have been around since 1926, and is crumbly hamburger on a fresh bun; cooked with the special Maid Rite seasoning.

I quickly crossed 3 lanes of interstate; AFTER I checked for traffic, and managed to take the exit, and travel 2 miles North to the Maid Rite Diner.

I hopped out of the car, ran to the door; but it was locked. (sad emoticon)

It opens in 10 minutes. So I grabbed my computer, as I'm listening to Special C on Track by Track with Kyle Cantrell on Sirius Bluegrass.

OH..and as I'm writing this...it is now 10:30am, and they have turned on the OPEN sign!!

Hooray, hooray....I hope you have a wonderful day!! (smiley emoticon)

This posting followed by a day another posting she submitted concerning a porch glider swinging chair she had touted in an earlier chat with a fan.

I LOVE this chair. It glides very smoothly.

I've bought 4 of them so far.

They are $199 here in Kirksville at Westlakes. You have to pay extra for them to put them together.

She posts best wishes to family members undergoing surgery, sends out notes to fans who query her about this, that and the other, writes notes from stops along her tour route and chats back and forth with them on the board, announces the sad demise of her bandmate Hunter Berry's dog Benny ("Sally & Hunter's doggy, "Benny", met his fate today, as he ran into the road. We sadly say goodbye to Benny. He was a very sweet dog, and many of you may have met him at Sally Mountain Park. We sure loved him, and will miss him so much!"). In conversation, she casually drops references to a webcast she's done, to email, to Twittering, to sequencing her new album on iTunes, printing song lyrics off an Internet site—bluegrass may be a music resonating with the ambiance and attitudes of America's backroads and backwoods, but one of its top practitioners is thoroughly wired to the information superhighway. And proudly so—this is, after all, the woman who, when laid up from a car accident in 1999 and unable to supervise auditions in Nashville, hired her band through the Internet.

"I love the Internet, I love technology and I love all the new things," she says enthusiastically via cell phone as she tools down the highway on her way from St. Louis to Nashville in that selfsame rental car she mentioned in her website posting. "Sometimes I don't have time—MySpace, these things are very time consuming. I try to keep up with them but it's very difficult after you have so many different sites to update, but luckily I have some help now."

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Rhonda Vincent, "If You Don't Love Your Neighbor, Then You Don't Love God"
From the
Gaither Bluegrass Homecoming Vol. 1 DVD, with Rhonda supported by Audie Blaylock on guitar and Bill Gaither tacking on the bass line. Marty Stuart and Del McCoury are among the dignitaries looking on. On Destination Life, Vincent's song 'I Heard My Saviour Calling Me,' also performed at the Bluegrass Homecoming celebration, is performed a cappella as the album's final number.

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Here's 'I Heard My Savior Calling Me' performed with the previous incarnation of the Rage, with Kenny Ingram and Darrell Webb (left and right) bookending Rhonda, Hunter Berry and Mickey Harris.

That said, Vincent has been impressively aggressive about exploiting the new technology to make a direct connection with her fans. A vocal bunch, they are, and the aforementioned message board is chockablock with give-and-take between the artist and her followers, on a variety of topics that may strike some as mundane, but are the stuff of enduring loyalty to the star. Beyond the chats, though, Vincent's allowed a rare inside look at an album in progress, as she did during sessions for her previous long player, Good Thing Going, when fans could log on and watch webcasts from the actual recording dates as the album took shape. (She was going to do the same for the new album, but it came together and was completed so quickly she didn't have time to get everything together for another webcast.) But as she reveals, the feedback from fans fuels her ambition to make every project distinct from what came before—because those fans can be an opinionated lot.

"It's wonderful, I love it, and it's a great way to know what's going on," she says of the fan feedback. "People are just now receiving the new CD, and I've already heard from five people saying, 'I love this project. I didn't think you could beat the last one.' It's always a challenge because people say, 'You can never beat this project.' I've heard that with every project I've ever done. That challenges me to do something different or something unique that makes it not the same or not comparable."

So it was that when she set out on the journey that became Destination Life, this most tech savvy of artists, while not entirely dispensing with the advantages modern technology offers (overdubs, for instance), went almost completely retro in her approach to the recording sessions. Part of this was due to the presence of two new members in her always-stellar Rage band: banjo master Aaron McDaris, previously with the Grascals, and young guitar phenom Ben Helson, late of Ricky Skagg's band, who joined at the end of '08 and had to get up to speed immediately.

"Destination Life was created in a little different way," she admits, "because I've decided to make a change in the music and make a change in musicians, and all of that happened at the same time. So when Aaron McDaris called and said, 'What do you want me to learn?' I said, 'Don't learn anything. Show up with a blank sheet of paper. We're all going to get to know each other, we're gonna play music together, and we're going to create an album first.' He said, 'Really? We're going to record before we rehearse?' I said, 'Yeah.' I wanted everybody to start on the same page; I didn't want them to feel like they were jumping on a moving train. So we all got together, we all learned the songs together, we shared ideas. On the song 'Eighth of January,' we were just sitting around, and Mickey Harris started doing that bass riff and then Aaron started playing the song, and before you knew it everybody had their instruments and we were all doing that song."

The aforementioned retro style refers to a shift Vincent made from recording an album in increments—tracking the instruments first, laying the final vocals over later—to gathering her reconfigured Rage musicians together and cutting loose as if they were on stage. The addition of McDaris—who makes as spectacular a debut with Vincent as he did with the Grascals, putting his mark on Destination Life with an electrifying approach to the banjo that is becoming his signature—and Helson, and the ease with which they meshed with Vincent and veteran Ragers Mickey Harris (acoustic bass, resophonic guitar—"we can't say dobro anymore," Vincent notes—and harmony vocals) and nine-year-tenured Hunter Berry (fiddle, mandolin, harmony vocal) facilitated the new approach. Which in turn has yielded the first Rhonda Vincent album sans any guest musicians, featuring only the band fans will see on stage with her.

"It's the right combination of musicians," she says. "We'd not played a note together. We came in the studio, I loved the magic that we generated, and that's when it hit me. I knew I wanted to do that, but I really hadn't made the decision. It became a very strict and disciplined process. It was about halfway through when I said I was going to make it a band album. We had played and it was like, okay, are we going to bring in a dobro player? Mickey plays dobro and I would love to add the dobro to our stage show. Then, all of a sudden the game is on, we are going to record only with this band. When Hunter started to play triple fiddles on something, I said, 'No, anything we can't emulate on stage we are not going to do.' The rule is now, unless we can do it on stage... It just became a priority and I said, 'This is going to be unique for me.' It's something wonderful to talk about, but more important is the fact that we can now go onstage and play everything we did on the record."

You will not find an artist more given to complimenting her band members than Rhonda Vincent, but McDaris's and Helson's versatility as players draws special praise, as she marvels at their ability to turn on a dime in the studio, moving effortlessly between hard driving bluegrass (as on the aforementioned "Eighth of January," a Chubby Wise song), the pop-ish country of the old Poco hit by Rusty Young, "Crazy Love," and the deep bluegrass gospel reflections of the Vincent-Dorothy Johnson co-write, "I Heard My Savior Calling Me." Not the least of the surprises McDaris brought was a taste of rhumba rhythm on the Carl Belew classic, "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)," a song that's been covered by the likes of Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam, and John Doe and the Sadies, but never quite like this. Vincent says she tried to encourage these fresh approaches, never knowing in advance what a run-through of a particular song would yield.

"Aaron knocked me out when I did 'Stop the World (And Let Me Off).' He did this incredible rhumba banjo, and when I started telling people about the album and 'Stop the World,' I was asked, 'Did you put a banjo on 'Stop the World'?' I said, 'Absolutely!' Aaron astounded everyone with this banjo style he came up with. I was so proud of him creating his own breaks on that particular song. When he does 'Anywhere Is Home,' it's an absolutely in-your-face, hard driving bluegrass song. Once again, he knocked us out with all the great things he came up with there. Their imagination in the studio is really great.

"Ben, the same way. I didn't want to just be overseeing Ben, always watching him. He's only 22 years old and I didn't know how much studio experience he'd had—in fact, I don't think he's had a lot. I had him go in with just the engineer, and he impressed me so much because his guitar work was his creation, with just the engineer in there. So what I wanted to do was give them their freedom and not have them feel like I was looking over their shoulders or trying to dictate to them. I wanted them to play what was natural for them, and not something that was forced."

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Early Rhonda: with her family band, The Sally Mountain Show, 'I Feel Closer to Heaven Every Day'

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Early Rhonda: In 1985 when she left the family band to go solo, her first destination was as a contestant on The Nashville Network's 'You Can Be a Star,' hosted by Jim Ed Brown, who gave her a big boost when he took her on the road with him. Note that Jim Ed asks her, 'You're a bookkeeper, right?'

Yet, as spontaneous as the recording process was, in contrast to her other albums, Vincent says the gathering of material was a more arduous task. Some of the songs on Destination Life had been incubating for years, a decade and a half in one case. She admits to being a pack rat when it comes to gathering material—"When I'm not working on a project, I have piles, I have thousands, I have, I think, five laundry baskets, huge laundry baskets, full of CDs people have sent me. So thousands of songs."—so when a tune she likes actually makes it onto a recording it's made it through some tall cotton. The aching heartbreaker, "Crazy What a Lonely Heart Will Do," by Paulette Carlson and Jimbeau Hinson, was hanging around for 15 years until surfacing on Destination Life. "They pitched that song to me back in my country music days on Giant Records," Vincent says, referring to her 1993-1996 tenure in the country mainstream. "Any time I find a song, if I even remotely like it, I think, You know, at some point in my life this song could work for something. I kind of filed it away in my disorganized way—Hunter Berry says I'm the most disorganized organized person that he knows, because I know where it is, but no one else can find it. So that one comes from 15 years ago, maybe even longer. I'm sure it's on the cassette tape the writers gave me."

Destination Life also contains what seems to be becoming a requisite trio of Rhonda Vincent co-writes. She doesn't write whimsical or throwaway songs—her composer's credit signals a message en route. The brisk pace and ebullient, keening vocal she affects on "What a Woman Wants to Hear" enhance the swoon factor of a song applauding a man for doing right by his woman, from verbalizing his feelings to penning a soothing love letter when the couple is apart. Vincent: "That's Connie Leigh's song. I took that one line, 'What a woman wants to hear,' and we wrote a totally new song around that line. I got so preoccupied with that line and wanted to tailor it to my husband and to my life. I find it will adapt to most womens' lives. I've been having a lot of fun with that." The gospel co-write with Dorothy Johnson, "I Heard My Savior Calling Me," has appeared previously on one of Bill Gaither's Bluegrass Homecoming DVDs, but it had been gestating for five years before it emerged fully formed. The lyric Johnson brought to Vincent was built on someone's actual testimony. Johnson told Vincent, "I think you can write a song around it." Five years passed. "Dorothy kept calling and calling, asking if I had written the song yet. I'd say, 'No, Dorothy, I haven't written the song.' One day I got on a plane, pulled it out, and when we landed the song was done. Songwriting is not something where I can sit down and say, 'I'm going to write a song today.' It doesn't work for me like that."

For Vincent, a record doesn't begin and end with writing/choosing songs and then performing them. For several years now she's been producing or co-producing her own albums. As eager as she is to discuss the music making part of her work, so does she shudder when asked about producing herself, bluntly admitting, "I do not enjoy any part of recording.

"The only part I enjoy about recording is when it's done," she explains. "The two parts I enjoy are finding new songs and it's fun trying them for the first time. The rest of it becomes very cumbersome and something I have to do. It's just something I have to do; it's part of what we do that I have to do. I have to record it, I have to make it right, I have to schedule everybody, mix it, master it, and all of that for me is very tedious."

Maybe so, but she's been taught by experts and really knows her way around a studio now. She credits the famed producer/engineer Ronnie Light with tutoring her in the ways of the studio in her early years. And though her three years as a mainstream country artist on Nashville's Giant Records did not translate into any meaningful commercial success, she looks back on that time as an invaluable learning experience that has paid dividends over time. "It brought me to where I am now—the quality of albums I can do," Vincent said of her Music Row apprenticeship in a 2001 interview with this writer. "I look at my Nashville years as being my college years. You go away to college and it's not necessarily fun but you learn what you need for the rest of your life, to do what you're going to do. That's how I look at Nashville—it was a learning experience for me. Gosh, from the studio to the business to every aspect—my husband says it doesn't matter if it's music business or monkey business, business is the same no matter what. And that's true, but I learned things I use every day. Especially, I think, the recording part of things. I sing the way I sing regardless, but it certainly depends on the quality of microphone I sing through as to what's going to project and what's going to make that recording the best it can be. They would set up ten different microphones and I'd sing on each one. I don't think I understood why at the time, but now I know they trained my ear, unknowingly at the time, to be able to hear that."

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I Gotta Start Somewhere'—the video for one of the stellar tracks on Rhonda's 2008 album,
Good Thing Going

Born into a musical family in Kirksville, Missouri, on July 13, 1962, Vincent was performing onstage as a five year old, along with her mother, father and brother Darrin, in her family band, the Sally Mountain Show (when she left to pursue her solo career, she was replaced, briefly, by Alison Krauss); she cut her first solo album, New Dreams & Sunshine, for the Rebel label in 1989. Apart from the aforementioned detour into mainstream country, she has stuck with bluegrass the whole way, with a mountain of awards to show for her efforts: six-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year (2000-2006), IBMA Entertainer Of the Year in 2001, The Society for Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) Entertainer of the Year from 2002 through 2006. She's been married to Herb Sandker since 1984 and is mother to two daughters, Sally and Tensel, born in 1986 and 1988, respectively. She would seem to have it all, but in the same way she's embraced new technologies, so does she also look forward to new challenges as an artist. No time to rest, or to rest on laurels.

"It's always that daily thing—listening to new songs, finding something unique, always seeking to do something different. My husband thought I would slow down at this point; he said, 'Listen, our daughters are in college, you can start slowing down.' I would not be happy doing that. I love working. I love doing things each day—I wake up with fifty or a hundred things to do, knowing I'm only going to get five or six of them done, maybe less. Reinventing yourself—I tell you who really taught me that, who's a really great role model for that, and that's Dolly Parton. She's 63 years old and each day is still finding what's out there for her to do. She gives me the affirmation to say that's okay, because I have a man at home saying, 'Why don't you sit here on the porch and relax and do nothing?' I would drive myself crazy if I was sitting there not doing anything."

(There's a personal connection with Dolly, too. In 2005, when Vincent had surgery to have part of her intestines removed, Dolly, unannounced, showed up at Vincent's house in Greentop, MO, to cheer her up. While in town, Parton accommodated the locals with autographs and posed for photos with a high percentage of the town's population, and graciously posed for photos in front of many local businesses.

Vincent credits Dolly Parton with teaching her how to reinvent yourself. "She's a really great role model for that. She's 63 years old and each day is still finding what's out there for her to do. She gives me the affirmation to say that's okay." In 2005 Parton showed up unannounced at Vincent's home in Greentop, MO, to cheer up her friend, who had undergone major surgery.

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The video for 'Heartbreakers Alibi,' from the 2006 All American Bluegrass Girl album, features Dolly Parton in a supporting role

Besides, as so many artists learn, there are moments in the life when the rewards cannot be calculated, so rich are they on their own. Thus the impetus for Vincent's tenacious drive to do more, be more.

"Being able to walk on stage and have people enjoy what you do," she says when asked about the most satisfying aspect of her chosen occupation. "I hear from people—I get letters you wouldn't believe, from people whose lives you've influenced, people who were on the verge of a breakdown, or in the midst of a huge family crisis, saying they listened to a song of yours and it turned their life around. When you're out here doing this, you don't realize that it really makes an impact on these people. I could really see this a couple of weeks ago. I performed in Richmond, Virginia, for the military. I sang the national anthem and two songs from All American Bluegrass Girl, 'Till They Came Home' and 'God Bless the Soldier.' I was so nervous about that, singing the national anthem at 6:30 in the morning, with dignitaries and VIPs sitting there. I'm thinking at 6:30 in the morning, how do I feel? I just want to see my coffee. I really don't want to hear somebody singing.

"But I sang and as I looked out, I saw they were sobbing. They had listened to the words and it really had made an impact. You don't find anything greater to reciprocate that feeling."

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'Muleskinner Blues'—Rhonda and the Rage captured live at the 2001 Merlefest. Michael Cleveland is on fiddle, Audie Blaylock on guitar.

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